Game 29: Michigan at Northwestern Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: Michigan (14-14, 7-9 B1G) at Northwestern (14-15, 5-11 B1G) Northwestern-Logo[1]
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)
When: 9:06 p.m., March 3rd, 2015
Radio: 950 AM, 1050AM

Just over six weeks ago, Michigan escaped with a two-point home victory over Northwestern. The Wolverines looked like a team that might have started to turn the corner, if only just barely, until the news that Caris LeVert was out for the season was announced the next day. Michigan, which was 4-2 after that win, is just 3-7 in its last 10 games and hasn’t been the same since.

Northwestern has lost quite a few games since the last meeting — the loss in Ann Arbor was game four of a 10 game losing streak — but it also put together its longest Big Ten winning streak in decades. The Wildcats four-game winning streak was sent hurtling back to reality on Saturday with a 26 point loss at Illinois, but it’s clear there’s a different energy around Chris Collins’ program headed down the stretch.

The Wildcats

When Northwestern traveled to Michigan in January, it had played 13 possessions of zone defense all season. A few weeks later the Wildcats started to play strictly zone defense. In six of its last seven games, Northwestern has run almost 100% zone. The switch hasn’t turned Northwestern into a dominant defense – the Wildcats allowed 1.13 points per possession in Big Ten play in their 10 man-to-man games and 1.08 points per possession in the six zone games – but it did result in a four game winning streak for a team that had lost 10 straight games.

Here’s a look at how half court possessions have resulted against Northwestern’s zone with the Wildcats recording stops on over 50% of those possessions in every game.


Northwestern’s defense isn’t great at much, ranking last in the Big Ten in forced turnovers and in the bottom half in both effective field goal percentage defense and defensive rebound. Northwestern is much better at defending inside the arc, allowing opponents to shoot just 44.7% (2nd) on twos, than outside the arc where opponents shoot a Big Ten worst 38.8%.

While the zone defense has drawn all of the headlines, improved offensive play was the key in Northwestern’s four-game winning streak. The Wildcats scored 1.15 points per trip in those four victories and averaged just .98 points per possession in their other 12 Big Ten games.

Despite the recent success, the Wildcats are ranked just eighth in the Big Ten at 1.02 points per possession of scoring output.

Northwestern is a good shooting team — 49% on twos (7th), 37% on threes (5th) for a 51.2 eFG% (5th) — but doesn’t do much else well offensively. The Wildcats give the ball away on 19% of their offensive possessions (11th), rebound only 26% of their misses (13th), and only attempt 26 free throws per 100 field goal attempts (14th).


They don’t have the most hype, but Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps form one of the more underrated backcourts in the conference.

McIntosh is a high-usage ball screen guard with an above-average mid-range game. He’s ranked third in the Big Ten in assist rate in league play and is shooting 49% on twos and 36% on threes.


Demps is a streaky shooter that loves the left corner. He’s shooting 51% on twos and 39% on threes in Big Ten play and seems to get hot whenever the Wildcats play well. He takes a high percentage of difficult isolation or ball screen shots, but isn’t as effective of a distributor as McIntosh.


7-foot big man Alex Olah dominated Michigan in the first meeting. Olah had a season-high 22 points on 9 of 12 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in that matchup, but he’s also reached double-figures in seven of the last eight games. Only AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas, Mo Walker and Frank Kaminsky have created more points from the post than Olah this season.

Olah will occasionally step out and shoot the ball from the perimeter, but he doesn’t provide a major threat in that regard.


6-foot-7 freshman Vic Law is averaging 12 points per game over the last four games and he’s shooting 59% from three-point range over that span. Senior wing JerShon Cobb missed the last six games but expects to play on his senior night while his coach says he’s ‘questionable’.

Law is shooting 35% on twos and 43% on threes in league play while Cobb checks in at 53% and 45%. Together they were 3 of 10 from long-range in the first meeting between these two teams.

Sanjay Lumpkin is a glue-guy and defender with a very limited offensive role while another specialist, Nathan Taphorn, is shooting over 50% on threes in Big Ten play.


  • Crack the zone: Michigan’s struggles against 2-3 zones this year have been well documented (Eastern Michigan, Iowa), but it also beat Syracuse. There’s no big secret of what Michigan will try to do against the zone, but the Wolverines have struggled sometimes to execute. Here’s a terrific clip of some of John Beilein’s zone offense staples (along with play diagrams) put together by Maine assistant coach Zak Boisvert.
  • Force turnovers: Northwestern has struggled with turnovers this season and gave the ball away on 21% of their possessions in the first meeting back in January. The reason Michigan won that game was the same reason many will say it lost on Saturday at Maryland: the 1-3-1 zone. Michigan ran the zone on over half of its second half possessions in the first meeting and the Wildcats couldn’t beat it. Later in January I put together this GIF of every shot Northwestern took against Michigan’s zone in that game – many of which were open.
  • Make threes: Threes were the major difference on Saturday as Maryland knocked down 11 and Michigan hit just five. It’s tough to win on the road, especially against a zone, without hitting threes so the Wolverines will need much better shooting performances from Zak Irvin, Spike Albrecht and Aubrey Dawkins. The good news for Michigan is that the Wildcats have the worst three-point defense in the Big Ten and the perimeter looks should be available against the 2-3 zone.

Bottom Line

KenPom projects a 59-57 Northwestern win, giving the Wolverines a 39% chance at the road upset. A loss would mean that Michigan is facing an uphill battle to make it into the NIT while a win would mean it still has a chance of finishing .500 in the Big Ten.

  • A2MIKE

    Interesting game. Senior night for NW, should be some emotion for that but they really aren’t playing for a whole lot else. They are locked into the bottom 4 and will play on Wednesday at the BTT. Michigan can’t improve their BTT seed, but need a win to have a chance at being NIT eligible.

    Northwestern seems to be peaking, Saturday aside. Michigan seems to have hit a wall.

    I would definitely bet the under, whatever it may be, because I see a slugfest with the first team to 60 winning.

  • ChipperFliet

    But can UM score on an out of bounds play under their own basket?

  • mikey_mac

    To say the Wildcats couldn’t beat the 1-3-1 because they missed a bunch of wide-open looks is a bit fallacious.